On Tuesday, a Virginia church filed a lawsuit against its home county after government officials there allegedly told the congregation it must obtain an alcohol license in order to gather on its own property.
The lawsuit was filed in federal court by Alive Church of the Nazarene and involves a unique arrangement the congregation says it had with Prince William County zoning board officials to meet on its newly purchased property, provided the church also conducted “agritourism,” according to the suit.
The church agreed to be zoned as an “agritourism” facility and decided to grow fruit trees and to make non-alcoholic apple cider, as well as to “open itself to the public for the purpose of religious worship and outreach as a church.”
The zoning administrator approved the congregation as an agritourism facility in February 2021 but stipulated that in order to “hold gatherings and events” on the property, it needed a license from the Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control.
Due to the church’s opposition to the sale and promotion of alcohol, the church declined to get a license even though the “Church was producing only non-alcoholic beverages,” the suit says.
Virginia law does not define agritourism as requiring alcohol sales, the suit says.
The American Center for Law and Justice is representing the church.
The church chose to be zoned as an agritourism facility in order to avoid hundreds of thousands of dollars in changes to the property that the county would have required to be zoned differently. The church, the suit says, does not have that type of money yet.
The congregation previously met in a public school building.
The suit alleges that the county is violating the church’s religious liberty rights under the U.S. Constitution and under the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA).
“If Alive Church was a winery or brewery, it could begin immediately meeting on its agriculturally-zoned Property, hold public gatherings for recreational, entertainment, or educational purposes, and even build buildings for public gatherings without being required to have a building permit or associated land improvements such as turn-lanes, curbs and guttering, or stormwater management,” the suit says. “... The Defendant, through its Zoning Ordinance, both on its face and as applied, is treating Alive Church differently and less favorably than secular assemblies or institutions such as wineries or breweries.”
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Michael Foust has covered the intersection of faith and news for 20 years. His stories have appeared in Baptist Press, Christianity Today, The Christian Post, the Leaf-Chronicle, the Toronto Star and the Knoxville News-Sentinel.